Tense opening half introducing two young women who are destined to be part of a torture show in the second half. Watch it if you want, but the film will try to chastise you for doing so.
In The Ringmaster, two young women working the night shift in a petrol station are spooked by pranks, harassed by customers, and teased by their boyfriends. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they are also captured and put on stage in a torture-and-snuff show. That’s pretty much it.
The young women, Agnes (Anne Bergfeld) and Belinda (Karin Michelsen), are not the bimbos who tend to frequent brutal horror films, but both strong and independent in their own ways. Agnes, the boss’s daughter, is using the night-shift to study and Belinda is having domestic issues over the phone, while also very aware of odd goings-on around her. Neither is a natural victim, which is refreshing (although their arc of disliking each other at first and then supporting each other as the film goes on is somewhat annoying).
The Ringmaster himself (Damon Younger) is all show and no character. He’s flamboyant and sadistic, but largely a figurehead for the show he is presenting: he sets in motion what the audience (and possibly sponsors) want to see, with an idea or two of his own thrown in. And there lies the theme of the film: people want to see violence. The Ringmaster is even given a “friendly” warning before the film starts that it will challenge boundaries so that we proceed knowing that nasty stuff is to come, and thereby accepting that this must be what we want to see. Once the torture starts, it becomes extreme rapidly, which feels a little odd: is it because the film has spent so long getting there, that there’s no point in build-up, or rather (more likely) to make the point that anything softer doesn’t affect a typical audience?
The story of The Ringmaster (originally called Finale) was based on the novella by Steen Langstrup, and I’m curious to know if that had the same problem that the film had. Those two elements – the tense gas station (a bit like Open 24 Hours) and the torture show – had the potential to be pretty exciting on their own, and either one could have had a daring survival escape attempt at the end. The film, however, insisted on covering both; and not only that but incorporating brief flashforwards of the captivity during the first half. So the rather effective suspense in the first half was broken up by these snippets (weakening it badly) and they also make it pretty clear what to expect, thus also softening the overall shock of the voyeuristic show.
Director Søren Juul Petersen could have made a more coherent film with steadily increasing shock value if the plot had been followed in a linear fashion. Perhaps the section in the petrol station could have been shortened because as it is the audience-as-vulture theme only applies to half the film. (That might have accommodated the filling in of a couple of plot holes too.)
That said, there are some very successful aspects of The Ringmaster. The production value is clearly high, with excellent cinematography, despite the largely dark settings. The acting is excellent all-round (at least for those who need to do any), and I especially liked a couple of minor characters, the seedy customers who came into the petrol station in a pair. The ending was satisfying, despite being a little rushed (another side-effect of squeezing too much into the film, perhaps).
But although it was pretty clear what kind of message the film wanted to deliver about what a sick society we are, that message didn’t really reach me. I felt like a vulture for watching the film, but I wasn’t taught any lesson about being that vulture.